October 26, 2008


Demeaning Waugh’s hateful, beautiful novel: The new film version of Brideshead Revisited turns Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece of light satire and heavy sentiment into a hymn to a suffocatingly woolly liberalism (Tim Black, Spiked Review of Books)

The charge of pointlessness does touch upon something about this new film version. But it’s not because it has deviated too little from the novel, but too much. And it fails to challenge, to arrest one’s attention, for precisely that reason. That is, by making Catholicism appear so oppressively malignant, by counterposing it to the liberal, live-and-let-live reasonableness of Charles, it panders to the contemporary distrust of commitment, of a belief in something beyond that which exists, religious or otherwise. Or as co-writer Jeremy Brock put it, Brideshead Revisited ‘speaks directly to many of the issues that count as “current” – religious fundamentalism, class, sexual tolerance, the pursuit of individualism’ (1). Brideshead Revisited the film is simply too modern.

To transfigure Waugh’s masterpiece of light satire and heavy sentiment as a hymn to a suffocatingly woolly liberalism comes at a considerable cost. And that is why it is missing something very important. Its name is Hooper.
The Age of Hooper

As peripheral as he may seem, Hooper is central to Brideshead Revisited. He not only bookends the novel’s present, as Charles’s platoon commander, his meaning pervades it. With his ‘flat Midlands accent’, his speech peppered with ‘okey dokeys’ and ‘rightyohs’, and his ‘business experience’, he is to Charles Ryder ‘a symbol of young England’. And it is not an England with which Brideshead Revisited’s narrator is particularly enamoured. Later, while reading of the deaths of Lady Marchmain’s brothers during the First World War, Charles reflects: ‘These men must die to make a world for Hooper; they were the aborigines, vermin by right of law, to be shot off at leisure so that things might be safe for the travelling salesman, with his polygonal pince-nez, his fat wet hand-shake, his grinning dentures.’ This ascendant breed, borne aloft by the secular religion of commerce, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, are literally repulsive to Charles.

If the age of Hooper is fast encroaching, the philistine has his barbarian accomplice in the figure of Rex Mottram. The film reduces him to crude malevolence, a man willing to trade his wife, Julia, for a couple of Charles’s paintings. Waugh’s image is more benign, but no less damning. Belonging to the ‘harsh, acquisitive world’ so rudely intruding upon the Arcadian environs of Brideshead, he is characterised by Julia as someone so ‘absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was whole.’ His sort could not, as the allusion to Matthew Arnold intends, ‘see life whole and see it steadily’.

And it is this, the one-sidedness of his character, his inability to see life not just in its material but in its spiritual aspect, too, that Waugh, following Arnold and Forster before him, portrays as modern man’s failing. All is ratio and ceaseless activity, calculating and doing; there is no contemplation, no intellect. The Rexs of this world are not evil or malicious, then. They, like Hooper, simply lack ‘intellectual curiosity, or natural piety’. Without at least the longing for faith, the world of Hooper is incapable of grasping just how forsaken it is.

Brideshead, from the magnificence of its coffered and carved roof, the columns and entablature of the central hall, to the attached chapel, is a symbolic counterpoint. For the young Charles it’s a haven, a world of enchantment and of faith barracked against the impending spoliation at the hands of the world of Hooper. For this, not Catholicism, is the ‘whisper of doom’ that clings so darkly to the Marchmains. And so, at the very end, with the army now encamped at Brideshead, it comes to pass. Charles thinks to himself: ‘Year by year, generation after generation, they enriched and extended [Brideshead], year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness; until, in sudden frost, came the age of Hooper; the place was desolate and the work all brought to nothing; Quomodo sedt sola civitas. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’

So why is Hooper is so important to the vision of Brideshead Revisited? Because without him, the Marchmains, and their attendant Catholicism, lose their symbolic meaning. They appear, as they do in the film, as little more than self-imposed prisoners of their faith. But with Hooper, indeed, in the context of the ‘age of Hooper’, the meaning becomes clear. The Catholic Marchmains, ensconced in their stately refuge Brideshead, enshrine all that modernity is apt to sweep asunder.

That this refuge, always described retrospectively, is no more, lends the novel’s languor – its lyrical, swooping passages of sometimes too-purple prose – not just its power, but its meaning. For in dwelling upon those ‘spots of time’, as Wordsworth would have it, they redeem Charles from the wreckage of his grey, meaningless present. The act of invocation has a near transcendent quality. Hence ‘Brideshead’ is ‘a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted later years began to take flight’. Brideshead Revisited, like the similarly disenchanted A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, is an art of memorial, the redemption of a vanished world.

What's interesting is that the same longing animates George Orwell's Coming Up for Air, making him a reactionary against the socialism he publicly advocated.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 26, 2008 7:21 AM
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